Monday, 13 May 2013

Hendrik Werkman – The Graphic Designer's Printer

Hendrik Werkman made his living as a commercial printer in Groningen, Holland, but is now remembered for his groundbreaking collaged artworks composed of type, rules, printing furniture and other objects, such as doorlocks. Many of the techniques employed by contemporary letterpress printers today – such as masking type, printing pictures of people from sorts, printing the back of woodtype – were pioneered by Werkman in the 1920s and 30s. He turned type into image, treated ink as though it was paint, loved paper textures and was delighted by the chance anomalies that occurred when all these variables came together.

H.N.Werkman, 'Plattegrond van de kunst en omstreken', uit Next Call nr.6, 1924, Groninger Museum

H.N.Werkman, 'Plattegrond van de kunst en omstreken', 
uit Next Call nr.6, 1924, Groninger Museum 

His experimental letterpress work began when he very nearly lost his printing business in 1923. He managed to retain just two of his 27 employees and moved the last of his type and equipment to a loft above a warehouse where he continued work as a jobbing printer. This event actually set him free – as he later wrote: “Like a wet poodle I shook off everything that for me was annoying”.

This was when he started making his ‘druksels’ (experimental prints or "printings") – short run or single prints – part traditional letterpress and part something else altogether! He put the paper on the bed of his 1850 German Dingler press, and placed pre-inked type and other printing materials on top: “I use an old hand press so […] the impression can be regulated instinctively. Sometimes you have to press hard, sometimes very lightly, sometimes one half of the block is heavily inked, the other half sparsely. Also by printing the first layer of ink on another sheet of paper you then get a paler shade, which is used for the definitive version… Sometimes a single print goes under the press fifty times”.

In September 1923, Werkman announced the launch of his new magazine – The Next Call – that he hoped would shake up the provincial members of the local art group De Ploeg, of which he was a member. It didn’t… but rather confirmed their pre-existing view of him as an eccentric. However, he exchanged copies for other leading avant-garde publications from all over the world.

Werkman was inspired by the avant-garde – Dada, Constructivism and De Stijl – but he wasn’t trying to change the world or impose a new typographic vision. In fact whereas other designers forced the letterpress process to achieve their designs, Werkman allowed the design to emerge from the process of printing: “Do you know the difference between me and the others? They are designers who do not work at a press and instead leave the production to others, while I produce designs during the course of printing.”

By the 1930s, Werkman was “hot printing” as he called it, ‘painting’ with rollers and using stencils and cut-outs. When Germany invaded the Netherlands and materials became scarce (every printer had to give up 200kg of metal type to make bullets) he worked with friends on a new subversive publication called De Blauwe Schuit (The Blue Barge) and two Chassidische legenden (Hasidic legends) portfolios. By this time there were almost no typographic elements in his work. In March 1945 he was arrested, probably for his sympathy towards the Jews, and his works were denounced as ‘Bolshevik art. He was executed by firing squad just a few days before Groningen was liberated by the Canadians.

H.N. Werkman, violist en publiek, 1942, Groninger Museum
H.N. Werkman, violist en publiek, 1942, Groninger Museum    

Hendrik Werkman has been enormously influential. Paul Rand was an early fan and Graham Wood of graphic design group Tomato wrote that The Next Call was as “vital and alive as any typography since, with more heart and soul than anything resembling it today.” But if it’s not your cup of tea, then you’re not alone. Richard Hollis describes his work as a “mockery of professional craft standards” and that “Werkman’s uninhibited graphic invention has been an inspiration to graphic designers anxious to introduce an obviously ‘creative’ effect”. It would certainly be easy to produce prints that rip off Werkman’s ideas. But remember that Werkman was able to print ‘properly’ – it was how he made his living, even if his heart wasn’t always in it. However, at a time when other designers were stressing the importance of ‘pure communication’ and functionalism, Werkman used letterpress techniques to show that playfulness is an essential part of design. Werkman was, as Herbert Spencer put it, “honest, simple, contemplative yet passionate – and above all, intensely human.”  

For further information see HN Werkman by Alston Purvis, published (2004) by Laurence King 

This article was written for Small Printer, the magazine of the British Printing Society.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Printing for Pleasure, by John Ryder

Printing for Pleasure by John Ryder

Phrases from John Ryder’s Printing for Pleasure run through Small Printer like an inky sort of DNA – if, like me, you’re a fan of the book you’ll spot them cropping up at regular intervals throughout the year. I’m fairly sure that at least 80% of fellow members have either read the book or have it in their collection. Its continuing popularity shows that it’s so much more than “a primer on printing for the amateur”, so what is the book’s enduring appeal?

First of all, it really is the best introduction to letterpress printing for the beginner. Chapters 2 to 4 guide readers through the important early decisions – finding a suitable press and choosing type – and then how to compose and set type, inking and of course printing itself. John Ryder does all this in just 63 pages with a lightness of touch and a gentle humour. As Francis Meynell wrote in his foreword to the first issue, this is “reading for pleasure as well”.

Such brevity can only introduce printing techniques, though it is incredible how much ground John Ryder covers in these few pages. He introduces correct printing terminology, provides some historical context to the choice of typefaces, offers practical examples of setting type and even presents an introduction to typography with advice on letter-spacing capitals. At the same time he hints that there is so much more to find out and suggests other books for further reading. It’s a delicate balance that manages to enthuse readers without overwhelming them. He sets readers on the right path, and then pays them the compliment of believing that with the right attitude they will successfully make their own way forward.

These three chapters alone would make the book worth reading, but John Ryder does so much more. The twin themes of ‘pleasure’ and ‘experimentation’ run through the entire book and this, I believe, is what makes Printing for Pleasure so relevant to contemporary letterpress practice.

Rutt's Press: Pleasure or drudgery? From Printing for Pleasure by John Ryder
Rutt's press poses the problem: Pleasure or drudgery?

In the first chapter Pleasure as Profit John Ryder states that having the right attitude and the freedom to choose what you want to print is what makes printing a “pleasurable pastime” rather than “profit making drudgery”. By making pleasure rather than profit the driving force of the printing enterprise, the printer is freed up to experiment with design, inking, different papers, pressures… In fact John Ryder devotes an entire chapter to Developing a Taste for Experimentation, writing “it is here on the amateur’s workbench (a place from which the time-sheet and the wage-bill are absent) that experiments can be made and repeated without end and without fear of bankruptcy”.

Why this should be so important becomes clearer in the next two chapters, Sources of Inspiration and The Little Presses where the author shows that it is the printers of the private presses, not the commercial printers, who have the time, energy and freedom to promote quality in printing and engage in typographic investigation. This field of research, he believes, can “have a good influence on printing in general”. This is heady stuff! One minute you’re a letterpress beginner choosing your first typeface; four chapters later you’re part of printing history!

His introduction to the private press movement is full of fascinating fragments of history: Edmund Campion printing seditious texts (for which he was later beheaded), the nine year old Charles Daniel inking type with his thumb, and Cobden-Sanderson throwing the Doves punches and matrices into the River Thames. By following this with a chapter on Where to Buy Your Equipment the implicit message is that you too can be part of that movement. Sadly his lists are not as useful now as they would have been in the 1970s.

But where does this leave those who are printing for profit? Are they to be excluded? Not a bit of it! I don’t believe that John Ryder was anti-commerce. He was himself a distinguished book designer and exemplary typographer, and I am certain that it was the experimentation, research and the subsequent pleasure of working at his own private press that makes his work so great. The beautiful design and production of his book Printing for Pleasure is a lasting testament to that. What John Ryder does for all printers is to give them total freedom of the press… in every sense.

This article was originally written for the April 2013 issue of the British Printing Society's magazine Small Printer
The BPS library holds the 1969 reprint of the English Universities edition. My copy is the Bodley Head edition, extensively revised and redesigned by John Ryder in 1976. For more information on the history of the book and the various editions see Paul Moxon’s website:

Monday, 18 March 2013

News Quote Number Two

Deregulate, Disaster, Shrug - Nick Doody, The Now Show

The second News Quote in the series (can I call it a series yet?) was delivered in splendid style by Nick Doody on The Now Show on BBC Radio 4. It follows on quite nicely from Billy Bragg's quote as he started with a rant on the horsemeat scandal, but then broadened it out to include "Suspiciously Cheap" clothes and flights and then on to the effects of deregulation -- or as he put it "Deregulate, Disaster, Shrug". It could be the food industry, but could equally apply to the financial industry and banks and...  

It was fun to have an excuse... no... a reason to use mixed type in this poster. It's not letterpress cuteness, it's not whimsey - it's deregulated typography. I may never have such a good opportunity again.

Surprisingly for such a simple design I tweaked the layout many times before printing the short run. This meant that the lock-up on the press is a little idiosyncratic, but nothing moved as I inked and printed, so it worked. 

Wood type on press bed

In case you are wondering, the three rules of printing News Quotes (I'm making this up as I go along) are that the quote needs to be printed fairly quickly after being said/written - or it's no longer news. (I am a bit late with this one as it was first broadcast on 8 March, but the episode is still just available on iPlayer.) Secondly, the quotes must all be printed on the same paper - 170gsm medium rough cartridge paper cut down to just fit on the press. Finally, the name of the person who said/wrote the quote must be included.

It's slightly concerning that both News Quotes so far have come from Radio 4. I may need to broaden my listening horizons.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Press Marks

Every private press needs a press mark or device. It works a bit like a trademark (I'd rather not call it a logo) which is usually printed on the title page of any book produced by a private press.

Sorting out a press mark for Semple Press has been really difficult for some reason, but I think I'm making progress on this now. I was very inspired by the Letterpress: Something to Say conference in November 2012 at the St Bride Library, and since then my thoughts on what I want to do at Semple Press have become a bit more coherent. Having 'something to say' is part of the story, but Semple Press is also becoming part of my graphic design practice - a way to explore graphic design history and experiment away from the screen. It's also a place where I can find my own voice away from paid work. 

Using speech marks, or commas, or other pieces of actual type in the press mark seems to fit with this ethos, so last weekend I started messing with the punctuation.  

Press mark experimentation - wood type

I'll come clean here -- with the wooden type used above I only had two commas and two speechmarks and so after arranging them in pairs I printed a few copies then scanned and assembled these designs in photoshop. Is this allowed in letterpress circles? Don't care really; I was experimenting, not practicing my registration skills. The top two designs were made using commas, the rest with speechmarks. These worked so much better than I expected and I had forgotten that the negative space in the arrangements would have as much impact as the punctuation itself. What you can't see in the prints is the rest of the actual pieces of type, which is what dictates what you can and can't do to make this sort of pattern. This is why you end up with a completely different pattern with commas than you do with speechmarks. This is obvious now, less so when I started working on this!

Experimental press marks with wood and metal type

These marks were all made on the press bed. The tea cup is made up of wood type, as are the triangular commas next to it. The rest are made with commas from a metal typeface, Franklin Gothic 72pt. It gives a very different effect to the softer woodtype. 

There's definitely a press mark in here somewhere - or at least I'm on the right lines - but I need to live with them for a few days first.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Printing with Sandpaper

an eye for an eye makes the world go blind

Since last July I have been working on a Seven Deadly Sins book with my friend Mary. This is a joint project based very loosely on a college assignment I did in 2003, which focussed on the second Iraq War. This time round, we have decided to base it on neoliberalism, largely inspired by the film Four Horsemen

It's taking a bit longer than we intended, because I am supplying the linocut illustrations and I keep re-doing them or getting stuck into other projects. (I believe this may be called procrastination.) However, last weekend I made some progress on the Anger spread. 

A (small) part of this page is the famous "eye for an eye" quote from Gandhi printed on a textured background. The quote is set in 24pt Goudy Bold and was my first ever attempt at centred text (it's been hanging around for a while). The textured background is made up of two layers of ink. The first was a red, laid onto the paper with a roller. The second layer was a darker red and printed from a block made of sandpaper... meaning I stuck a really rough piece of sandpaper to a piece of plywood, then mounted the whole thing onto a block of wood to bring it type high. Sandpaper takes a lot of ink before it will print and it can't be applied to the block with a roller, so I had to use an old brush. Inevitably it then took a long time to dry before I could print the quote on top. In the time it took to dry, I learnt how to print the quote in the right place on the page, so the time wasn't wasted.

Gandhi quote

I printed the text using as little impression as possible - enough for the words to be readable but not so that it was visible on the back of the paper. Something I hadn't quite anticipated was how the textured background would work with the printed type. To be honest it's come out better than I expected and has fired me up to continue with the rest of the book. Unfortunately I am now aware that the more usual version of the quote is "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" so the temptation to do the whole thing again is very strong. Especially as I probably wouldn't centre the text another time and there are only eight good copies for a print run of seven. Dilemma. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

News Quote Number One

Wood type poster, If you leave everything to the market you get horsemeat, Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg was on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live last weekend being his usual ebullient self. During a discussion about the UK's strange bias towards people with a privileged background in all walks of life from the front benches of parliament to smug public school boys "clogging up the charts", it was suggested that maybe it was ok to let the market decide what should be in the charts... To which Billy Bragg immediately responded "If you leave everything to the market you get horsemeat in your burgers". Brilliant.

Having recently acquired two newsy looking sets of 20 line type - one very condensed and one slightly less condensed - it occurred to me that Billy's response was an excellent excuse to print a letterpress poster. I set the wood type straight onto the bed of the press that very afternoon, mixing letters from both to keep it within the bounds of the paper and because I didn't have quite enough letters to print it using one set. The wood type isn't in the best shape so needed a fair bit of make-ready, but the point was to print the quote the same day. 

Wood type

I printed it on a medium rough cartridge paper (170 gsm) and the final effort looks a bit like one of the pavement board posters you see outside newsagents. The quote weirdly seems to gain significance by being made into a poster...

There's a very established trend now for letterpress printers to print quotes of the Keep Calm and Carry On variety, and even the most banal piece of fridge magnet wisdom can take on the veneer of credibility when turned into a letterpress poster. Fortunately, there's also some great work from printers like gridula or The Counter Press which provides hope (and a laugh) and work from Meat Collective makes my head spin it's just so good. To get me started however, there's definitely scope for a series of posters of 'News Quotes' or 'News Comments' -- the kind of comment that just sums up a particular story, or has you screaming at the radio, or makes you laugh. A News Quote poster series could provide an interesting take on the news over a period of time... or it might just reveal my own political bias in 3 inch type. I'm willing to take that risk and am now listening out for suitable quotes for new posters -- let me know if you hear any.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Magic of Shiny New Type

Shiny new type from Hand and Eye

Taking it One Step at a Time (part 2)

The new type from Hand and Eye foundry arrived much quicker than expected. It came wrapped in large quantities of brown paper and bubble wrap, which took ages to carefully undo. New type is surprisingly shiny and I tried and failed to prevent myself from going into Gollum impressions "My preciousssssssss". It's ok, there was no-one to see...

I typeset Mary's business card again, taking the opportunity to tweak the design - a little less leading there, a little more there, a different kind of rule, putting Mary's name in 12pt rather than 10pt - and inked up the press again ready to try the first print with the new type.

But before I did that I made absolutely sure that the Adana was set to minimum impression because I want this new type to last as long as possible.

It was a bit nerve-wracking to try that first print because at the back of my mind I was worried that the problem hadn't been with the type at all... but the very first print was immediately so much better than the best of my previous attempts and it all suddenly seemed... easy. The letters were crisp and clear and the commas looked like commas rather than squashed midges. 

Printing with old and new type - a comparison

Printing the cards after that was relatively straightforward, though there was a nasty moment when it looked as though the left hand edge was wonky even when the bottom edge was straight. Took a while to realise that the cards had not been cut straight, so I will be trying a different supplier in future. Though ultimately it would be much better to cut them myself. This discovery meant that each and every card had to be checked for a square edge before printing. One day this will all seem hilarious.

So what have I learned?
1. Never buy second hand type without checking it with a magnifying glass
2. Don't bother to buy second hand type in smaller sizes unless it's very unusual, or you know the previous owner treated it properly

Although I suspect this whole episode reads like a nightmare, it's actually been an enjoyable experience. Really! It's been very satisfying to figure out, step by step, why things aren't working and to gradually put them right. Printing is a mechanical and logical process and it just takes a bit of time to get it right. Unfortunately it just takes me ages to get it right! I'm hoping that once I move on from 'letterpress beginner' to 'letterpress intermediate' the process might get a little quicker.

Finally I have been trying to work out how the previous owner of that second hand type let it get into such a terrible state. Did he/she really throw it across his/her workshop and stamp on it? Or were the typemice busy? Or perhaps that's just how type gets after a long and useful life. It should really be destined for the hellbox so it can go back to the founders to be made into more new shiny type... But Gordon Chesterman's idea of setting worn type in resin for further creative experimentation suggests there might be a little more life in it yet.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Taking it One Step at a Time

worn type

Over the last few days I've been on a voyage of discovery... ascending a steep learning curve... undergoing trial by type... enduring initiation by ink... Yes, you're absolutely right - these are euphemisms. I'm having trouble printing some business cards.

Unfortunately these business cards are for my friend Mary who is an utterly brilliant letterpress printer and bookbinder, and it would severely pain me to present her with cards that were anything other than well printed. With hindsight perhaps it would have been better to print cards for myself first, or for the dog... or for someone who actually genuinely likes the 'distressed letterpress aesthetic'. But on the plus side once/if I (ever) crack this, I might be able to cast aside the 'letterpress newbie' label and advance to 'letterpress intermediate'.

It started well, with a parcel from the Happy Dragon's Press containing everything I needed to replace the packing on the Adana. I could have followed the instructions in the Adana manual and packed the platen with newsprint paper, card and a paper topsheet (the cheaper option) but I liked the sound of their 'Swiss packing' and decided to give it a try. It arrived with extensive instructions and there was also a very friendly and helpful email from Stafford, so fitting it all was relatively stress-free.

The new packing is excellent so I am very pleased with my investment (though bear in mind that my only point of reference to compare and contrast it with are soft porn pages covered with brown card - see Unusual packing for an Adana 8x5). 

Sadly the new quality packing made it suddenly obvious that my Adana was nowhere near as well set up as I'd thought. The forme was meeting the platen at a bit of an angle, so the top edge of the card couldn't print. This meant squaring up the bed by setting a chase with an H in each corner, inking it up, and turning the impression screws on the back by increments until there was an even print across the paper.

That done I was all ready for business card production... or so I thought. But even with the new packing and the newly squared bed, the prints were horrible. Blobs of ink where I didn't expect or want them and some letters with parts missing, or absent completely, and some letters bolded up. Over the next couple of printing sessions I attempted the following solutions:

1. Printing on different kinds of card
2. Using less ink 
3. Using a different ink
4. Using a little more pressure

Each time I tried something new the resulting prints were a little better, but it was still nowhere near presentable. 

Finally I looked closely at the type itself using a linen tester, and had a horrible shock. Some of the type was extremely worn, some was missing parts of the letters altogether and many pieces were filthy - with ink-encrusted random gobs of nastiness which turned out to be responsible for those extra blobs of ink. And some letters were from from different typefaces altogether. This was a bit of a low point as I'd bought this type second hand last summer and hadn't used it before. Sometimes that learning curve just feels very steep indeed. 


So I've ordered new type (got to keep those foundry and monotype boys in business or we won't have any nice type to print with) and while I wait for that to arrive, I've been swapping out the worst offenders, cleaning the type carefully and spotting up where necessary. Every time the prints look a little better. And every time I do this, my hands seem to have a better idea of what they're doing, and things come together a little faster. 

By the time my new type arrives my hands and head will be in synch and I'll be printing perfect business cards. Just you wait and see! Fortunately Mary is a very patient woman.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Unusual packing for an Adana 8x5...?

Fiesta magazine - unusual packing for an Adana 8x5

I bought my Adana 8x5 on eBay a few months ago. I was lucky. It was a bargain and in complete and full working order. The only thing that really needed doing, and I've been meaning to get round to this for ages, was to replace the packing on the platen. It had gone a bit wavy in the less than perfectly controlled humidity of its surroundings. Now however, as I'm about to print some business cards for a friend I decided the moment had come to tackle the job.

A previous owner had rather ingeniously used magazine pages covered by brown card to pack the platen. I was curious to see what lay beneath - just to see what year the packing had last been changed. If I'd thought about it at all I would have assumed that the pages were from a Radio Times or a Reader's Digest. Or perhaps even from Small Printer (The British Printing Society's magazine, though come to think of it, Small Printer would be better suited to packing an Adana 5x3).

Imagine my total delight when I found that the magazine pages actually came from a soft porn magazine. Not just any soft porn magazine either, but from Fiesta magazine, which is famous for introducing the original "Readers Wives" feature to an unsuspecting and more innocent world. There are so many things which I could write about this discovery – but it would feel like shooting fish in a barrel, so I won't. It certainly brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "Ladies of Letterpress" though...

Enough to say that I made the following observations:
1. The women have carefully tended but luxuriant lady gardens - it's all rather retro
2. There were no dates (the pages had been cut to size) but judging from the film reviews (Aliens, Stripper, Pretty in Pink and Invaders from Mars) it seems that this was an issue from 1986. 

Clearly, replacing the platen packing was a job that was long overdue.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Wood Type Poster

... masquerading as wrapping paper

wood type

On the Friday before Christmas, when I should have been tidying the house, putting up decorations, chained to the stove (insert Christmas blah here) I was actually printing wood type in the print shed. But it was ok because I was printing wrapping paper... or that was my story anyway.

The idea was to assemble some nice examples from my various sets of wood type, including some tasty individual letters picked up at markets and second hand shops, in a random arrangement and make a large poster. 

I absolutely love wood type - it has a tactile, strokeable quality that lead type simply doesn't have. However it really is a world of pain to print, because being made of wood it expands and contracts. And if you print type from different sets you're sure to have a lot of work to do to make it all the same height. I knew this which is why I bought lots of sugar paper (12p a sheet - bargain!) so that as I worked with the type to bring it up to type high, I could turn the waste prints into wrapping paper.

Wood type print

"Phwoar! Look at the wood grain on that!" This was obviously my first reaction to the first print. Followed by surprise at just how invisible some of the letters were compared to others. To a non-printing person this looks rather nice -- though to a printer just looks like bad printing! I discovered why there was quite such a difference when I measured some of the letters using a micrometer. They ranged in height from 0.903" to 0.934", when as Any Fule Kno they should be 0.918". Although it doesn't sound much it really does make all the difference.

Micrometer showing 0.918" - type high

It did occur to me to sand down the backs of the tallest ones to make them match the rest... no, just kidding! The only way to get all the letters type high was to print a sheet to find the light letters, then unlock the type and raise up the offending letters with sheets of paper of various thicknesses and thinnesses and then print again... and then go through all that again and again and again until it looked right. (If any readers know an easier way to do this, please do make a comment!)

The type on the bed ended up looking like this:

Wood type on press bed

And the grim reality of working with wood type, aka the mess I created, looked like this (I did clear everything away before making the next print):

The grim reality of working with wood type

It could have been a chore, but it wasn't because 6Music was playing and I dropped into a sort of meditative daze. Quite pleasant.

I ended up with loads of wrapping paper, which satisfyingly looked like this:

Wrapping paper

You can spot the later prints as they are the ones where all the letters print at more or less the same strength.

However, ironically my friends and family actually preferred the paper where some letters printed really well and some badly. Nicer contrast apparently!